As the containment measures in the country get lifted, many of these workers have no choice but to return to work, as they would otherwise be denied compensation they are owed from March. Workers have taken to the streets in protest, demanding their unpaid wages, according to the Associated Press.
"The garment workers are in a precarious situation," said Al Jazeera reporter Tanvir Chowdhury. "They are worried about the coronavirus and their safety, yet at the same time, they know if they don't join they will be laid off. They need salaries."
"[My line chief] told me if we don’t show the world the factory is ready and working, the orders will go to Vietnam, Cambodia, or some other places and eventually we will all be kicked out of our jobs anyway," a machine operator named Ayesha told the Guardian.
Garment workers in Bangladesh are primarily women, and many are the sole income earners for their families, according to CNN. They earn around $110 a month, barely enough to afford housing, food, and other basic necessities.
The Bangladesh government has directed garment factories to implement physical distancing measures inside the facilities, but multiple workers who spoke to the Guardian said that this was not being done.
"People are falling sick even inside the factories during work hours," a worker named Islam told the Guardian. "But the management tells us that everything is safe and completely under control, which is a blatant lie."
One 19-year-old worker said that they had to pay for masks with their own money, and that there is no social distancing within the factory.
"We just wash hands once while entering the factory, that’s it," he said.
Garment factories produce 84% of Bangladesh’s exports and employ more than 4 million people in the country, according to the Guardian.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many low-income workers have borne the burden of having to return to risky work environments. In developing countries such as Bangladesh, working from home, or forgoing work in order to stay home, is often not possible.
"If you’re a day-wage laborer in a rural area of a developing country, and you don’t have much of a buffer of savings, you may be reliant on your wage earnings in a given day or a given week in order to feed your family," wrote Mushfiq Mobarak, a development economist with the Yale School of Management.
The pandemic is highlighting massive class divides and extreme inequality around the world.
In the United States, higher-income workers are staying at home while lower-income workers are continuing to move around, the New York Times found. Grocery workers are continuing to work, even though many do not earn a living wave, and do not have paid sick leave. At least 41 grocery workers have died because of COVID-10.